Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Background to Britain

When I was 16, the senior high school teacher gave us a booklet titled "Background to Britain". We were to read it during the summer vacations. Looking back, I think it is fair to say that this small book, written by M. D. Munro Mackenzie & L. J. Westwood, kindled my interest in the English culture.

It was significant that the book was written by two Englishmen with a great care in the selection of materials. For example, the chapter on English weather went thus.



'Other countries have a climate; in England we have weather.' This statement, often made by Englishmen to describe the peculiar meteorological conditions of their country, is both revealing and true. It is revealing because in it we see the Englishman insisting once again that what happens in England is not the same as what happens elsewhere: its truth can be ascertained by any foreigner who stays in the country for longer than few days.
In no country other than England, it has been said, can one experience four seasons in the course of a single day! Day may break as a balmy spring morning; an hour or so later black clouds may have appeared from nowhere and the rain may be pouring down. At midday conditions may be really wintry with the temperature down by about fifteen degrees. And then, in the late afternoon the sky will clear, the sun will begin to shine, and for an hour or two before darkness falls, it will be summer.


I started to learn English at the age of 12, and by the time I encountered this book, I was still in the steep slope of the learning curve (maybe I still am). In any case, it was significant that the prose was beautifully written by two gentlemen with a love for their mother culture, with a well-balanced humor.

In learning a foreign language, it is important to choose the study material carefully. Language is like music. Some texts are well-written, with aesthetically satisfying results. Some study materials are unnatural and contrived, being specifically written for someone with limited vocabulary. While those artificially written specimen of a foreign language is surely well meaning, they somehow destroy the aesthetics of the learner.

It was fortunate that, some 3-4 years after I started to learn English, I encountered this beautiful text. I still regard this small booklet as a gemstone in the learning steps of my humble life.


The "Background to Britain" book I read during one senior high school summer vacation.


Utako said...

It was really fortunate to encounter the beautiful text which can be admirable through a life at 16. And the encounter with the teacher who selected such a book.

Through the junior and senior high school, I didn't chance on a whole book written in English. The first book that I read through at univ. was "Death of a salesman" written by American playwright Arthur Miller. I was shocked and influenced by the social bird's eye view and the hard boiled strong dialogue.

"Language is like music."
For me, it took time to touch the sound of foreign language. But once I vibrate with it, I have only to nestle up to it...

(ma)gog said...

When I was in junior high school, we were given small booklets by oxford press for the English learners to read almost every vacation. These booklets were not probably as sophisticated as "Background to Britain", but through these booklets I was first introduced to the core of British people's mind. I was very much intrigued by their twisted sense of humour, represented by their talk about weather. When I first visited Britain as an adult, I was convinced that this characterisc lies in the bottom of their daily life. If you happen to meet anyone in the street when it is pouring, he would definitely say with a smile, "It's a beautiful weather, isn't it?"